Federal

Obama Signs Bill Aimed at Saving Teachers’ Jobs

By Alyson Klein — August 10, 2010 6 min read
President Barack Obama signs legislation in the Oval Office on Aug. 10 that provides $10 billion in aid to states and school districts to avert educator layoffs.

President Barack Obama has signed a long-stalled measure aimed at keeping more than 160,000 teachers on the job.

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday gave final approval to the bill, which provides $10 billion in aid to states and school districts to avert educator layoffs and hire new staff members.

The measure also provides $16 billion in Medicaid funding to states. That has an indirect benefit for schools, because states would likely have had to make additional cuts—including to education—if the money for Medicaid had not been forthcoming.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters yesterday that he aims to implement a “streamlined” application process for states and districts to snag their shares of the education jobs fund.

Mr. Duncan said he hoped to get the money out to districts and states “in a matter of weeks.”

Still, he said, the money will not necessarily completely alleviate state and district financial woes.

“There’s still unmet need out there,” Mr. Duncan acknowledged. For “the vast majority of districts around this country, this is a major step in the right direction, ... [but] many folks will still have to make tough decisions.”

During debate over the bill, GOP lawmakers had argued, however, that the measure would simply prop up school districts who they said have gone on a hiring spree in recent years.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, noted that Congress had already approved $100 billion last year for education programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with the intention of providing temporary relief to states.

“It was a one-time investment, we were told—they would not be back for more,” he said in the floor debate on the new legislation. “Yet here we stand. They are back for more.” Rep. Kline said that the bill would do nothing to overhaul teacher-layoff practices, which critics say tend to prize seniority over other factors, such as teacher effectiveness. Some education organizations, including the Education Trust, in Washington, which advocates for poor and minority children, had encouraged Congress to include language in the bill requiring districts to abandon such practices as a condition for receiving the funds.

“Earlier this year,” Rep. Kline said, “Education Secretary Arne Duncan told us, ‘Today, the status quo clearly isn’t good enough.’ The status quo is exactly what this $10 billion will perpetuate. Schools will continue to operate on ‘last hired, first fired’ policies that ignore student achievement when deciding which teachers to keep in the classroom.” He continued: “These dollars are not targeted based on jobs at risk or student needs. This is nothing more than an across-the-board inflation of state spending.”

The legislation’s proponents, including Mr. Duncan, estimate that it will support over 160,000 teaching jobs.

But some economists have questioned that figure, saying that it’s difficult to gauge how many jobs will be saved or created.

“I’m skeptical of these numbers,” said Michael Podgursky, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who specializes in teacher labor markets. “It’s difficult to know how many layoffs are going to occur. ... This is just like the stimulus funds—it’s hard to know how many [job cuts] would have would occurred in the absence of your program.”

Mr. Duncan, though, said yesterday that he is confident in the jobs projection.

“We think this number is fairly solid,” the secretary said. “This is based on actual need and cuts we’re seeing around the country.”

Angst Over Offsets

Some Democrats who supported the overall legislation expressed misgivings about the budget offsets, including a nearly $12 billion cut to the food stamp program, chosen to help cover the cost.

“At a time when we have seen the demand for food assistance skyrocket, we have chosen to pilfer $12 billion from the food stamp program,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said during the debate. “When so many families are struggling, … cutting food assistance is unconscionable. The bill before us today shamefully pits these priorities against each other.”

The new law also takes aim at some education programs, including a $10.7 million cut to Ready to Teach, which finances telecommunications-based professional-development programs for educators and educational videos; an $82 million cut to student financial-aid administration; and a $50 million cut to Striving Readers, which underwrites adolescent-literacy programs.

Literacy and high school advocates, while supporting the effort to save jobs, were angered that the reading program was targeted.

“We know that literacy is a huge problem,” said Philip Lovell, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that works to ensure all students graduate from high school prepared for college or the workforce. He noted that Striving Readers helps address a key population.

“We shouldn’t be cutting education to fund education. Fundamentally, that’s the problem,” Mr. Lovell said.

Preservation for the Future

Meanwhile, some school districts are already preparing to rehire staff members who had received pink slips. For instance, the 225,000-student Broward County, Fla., district has recalled 344 of 555 laid-off teachers.

But Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina education department, said districts in his state are likely to use the funds to dodge future layoffs, not necessarily to bring back teachers who have already been let go. He said districts in the Palmetto State had eliminated about 4,000 jobs over the past two years, including 2,800 to 3,900 classroom teaching positions.

“Those positions are gone,” Mr. Foster said in an e-mail. “We anticipate that districts may be forced to eliminate several thousand additional positions in next year’s budget, and these dollars may help districts stave off some of those cuts.”

Getting the education aid through Congress was a long, politically fraught ordeal for its proponents. The House initially approved a version of the measure in January that would have given $23 billion for an education jobs fund. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending, introduced a similar measure in that chamber, but Republicans and moderate Democrats balked at the price tag.

To gain support from moderates, Democratic leaders scaled back the package to $10 billion and cut other programs so that the legislation would not add to the federal deficit.

But the White House—and education-reform-minded Democrats—chafed at the cuts that Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, selected. Those included a $500 million cut to the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, which rewards states for making progress on education redesign assurances; a $100 million cut to charter school grants; and a $200 million cut to the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides money to set up performance-pay programs.

The Obama administration threatened a presidential veto of the bill if it included those cuts, and moderate Democrats in the Senate also opposed them. The bill’s Senate sponsors selected another set of cuts, including to Striving Readers, and ultimately passed the bill earlier this month.

House members returned from their August recess to pass the measure Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition of Education Week

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